Jimmy Opened the Gate

“We were touched by the symbols of our heroes–Josephine’s stage, Baldwin’s words, Faith’s images, and even Martin’s pulpit at the American Church in Paris–and as we reflected on their contributions, we knew that we would not be were it not for them and each other.”

When I took the helm as La Maison Baldwin’s director, I knew the stakes were high for success. There was no money, a seemingly unending list of damaged relationships, including with the Baldwin family, administrative obligations to the French government that had been untended to since the founding, and an overdue promise for a writer’s conference on the calendar. In my piece, Two Jimmys from Harlem, written as I took on the role, I could only look to the heavenly grace of two brothas from Harlem, my father Jimmy and James Baldwin himself, to guide me through this journey.

Some things came easy. Trevor Baldwin, James’s nephew, was gracious and supportive of my transition and was optimistic that together, we could close the distance between the organization and the family.  The Black ex pat community in Paris opened their loving arms wide, grateful that the organization was heading in a new direction. Meanwhile, there’s never anything easy about dealing with French administration, but La Maison Baldwin’s visibility within the Paris association community has been solidified just in time for the centennial preparations in 2024.

It was the conference that weighed heaviest on my mind. Inheriting this critical event, I had to remain consistent with the promises that had been made while making it my own creatively, stamping my own brand of leadership on an event that bore the name of one of our literary icons.  No pressure. In the months before the arrival of our writers, I would scan the names, wondering if their trust and faith would be enough to bring us through this moment. Could we collectively carry the spirit of Baldwin into this gathering, forever changing the turbulent narrative of LMB’s past and honor him in the way he deserved?

I Am Because You Are

I’ll admit that as the conference got underway, I was singularly obsessed with the logistics. Perfection was the goal, but French transport kept making a fool of me and I sensed, even with some resistance, that the Universe was trying to draw my focus elsewhere.

Le Carrousel, Josephine Baker’s First Cabaret location, Photo credit: Byron Armstrong

In the very first workshop, hosted at Josephine Baker’s first cabaret, Le Carrousel, the poetry group invoked the African principle, ubuntu. Ubuntu means, “I am because you are” and embraces the idea that humans cannot exist in isolation. We depend on connection, community, and caring—we simply cannot be without each other. This idea continued to swell as the days progressed, where moments of vulnerability stood in solidarity with gestures of love and immersive joy. We were touched by symbols of our heroes—Josephine’s stage, Baldwin’s words, Faith’s images, and even Martin’s pulpit at the American Church in Paris—and as we reflected on their contributions, we knew that we would not be were it not for them and each other.

Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach quilt, Picasso Museum
Statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the pulpit at the American Church of Paris

Inspiration was abundant in our little cocoon of a gathering. As the words spilled out on the pages and in conversation, I found myself overwhelmed by the fact that this group of people were now in my own circle of community. We were truly blessed in this gathering and each daily open mic was a culminating reminder of the extraordinary talent and courage that was in our midst.

But, outside of our literary bubble, Paris was burning, and we knew it. As Black people, we were in no way immune to the uprising over the senseless murder of 17-year-old, Nahel M., by the police. An all too familiar scene for the Americans among us, Nahel’s spirit was present in our words and minds. We gave him a seat at our table of rage, healing, connection, and love. We held his mother’s grief in our hearts knowing that our work as artists and social activists continues. Through this tragedy, we were reminded once again that we are because Nahel is.

Photo courtesy Christian Science Monitor

The core conference wrapped up with a powerful open mic at the feminist bookstore, Un Livre et Une Tasse de Thé. Fortified by four days of fearless exchanges and tender bonding, the group had summoned our ancestors into the room. Grandmothers, mothers and fathers whose love continued on in the spirit realm had come to bless our words that evening. Curious passersby on the street tiptoed in, almost on a dare from their souls, to feel the energy that was swelling in the space. Tears, laughter and hugs brought the formal festivities to a close. We would all be forever changed by our time together.

Our final open mic at Un Livre et Une Tasse du Thé

Then Jimmy Opened the Gate

The next day, a smaller segment of us went on an excursion to Nice and Saint Paul de Vence, James Baldwin’s adopted hometown for the final 17 years of his life. Honestly, my expectations for this part of the conference were restrained as La Maison Baldwin lost the battle for the house several years ago. Saint Paul de Vence and the fight was also the source of the initial controversy over LMB, asking the question of who is entitled to claim Baldwin’s legacy in this space?

There still remains no public recognition or respect for Baldwin’s presence in the village which has honored other great figures of culture, such as Matisse or Chagall. Unfortunately, those who championed the fight locally alienated the Baldwin family, making a victory nearly impossible to achieve. Alas, I envisioned that our little group would ascend a hill and look upon a place with a mix of melancholy and frustration for all it represented. I was merely fulfilling an obligation to those who were enticed by this à la carte option to their registration.

Eric Freeze, a friend of LMB, graciously gave us an overview presentation about Baldwin’s house in Saint Paul de Vence in which he highlighted the importance of seeing the house as more than its terra cotta tiles and multiple acres of land. Baldwin’s own niece, Aisha Karefa-Smart, echoed the same sentiment in a Medium piece, Remembering His House, from 2017 when addressing the fight for the house.

“His place in Provence was not just his place, it was a communal place, where family, friends, lovers, confidants, and fellow artists could share stories, break bread together, drink, and yes party! It was a very special place.”

Remembering His House, Aisha Karefa-Smart

We know that Baldwin’s final unpublished manuscript was a play called The Welcome Table, which took place at his home in Saint Paul de Vence. Aisha’s words couldn’t capture more accurately the concept of the “welcome table”

Our visit to Saint Paul de Vence started with a lovely chat with Luc Trizan, a friend of Baldwin’s and an accomplished sculptor himself. Under the low-hanging branches of the leafy trees that peppered Luc’s yard, we gathered around a massive marble table, accompanied by the chirping birds amidst the summer silence. Luc proudly displayed a clock that he had made in dedication to his friend, James, and he welcomed whatever questions we had about the man. Passing around a signed copy of No Name in the Street, translated to Chassés de la Lumière, we listened intently as Eric relayed Luc’s French reflections of his friend.

Luc’s message was simple. That he and Baldwin were artists tending to their craft everyday, checking on each other’s progress. They did not speak of their deepest thoughts or secrets with one another. That level of intimacy in friendship was not particularly French or masculine in their day. But it appeared both men took comfort in the consistency of each other’s presence as they traveled their respective artist’s journeys.

Signed copy of James Baldwin’s book, No Name in the Street

The peace and beauty of Luc’s garden home was a stark contrast to the village center that we journeyed to shortly afterwards. I was surprised by the frenzied and touristic nature of the village. I can’t imagine these would be Baldwin’s haunts in this day and age. Reproduced art galleries familiar to Place des Vosges in Paris, souvenir shops and posh boutiques lined the narrow, crowded streets. More jarring was the overwhelming lack of diversity and the “velvet rope” that blocked the entrance to Le Colombe d’Or, one of Baldwin’s daily stops.

Eventually, we made our way to the place where Baldwin’s home stood. I scanned my body and found a numbness inside. The weight of the battle for this Black man’s space was heavy and the greater context in which that battle was lost even heavier. The nine of us stood in front of the gate, taking in the renovated remnants that had been transformed into luxury condominiums. The bastide and gatehouse were recognizable from the photos. As was the one large tree that remained in the front, but a voice inside me kept questioning as to whether James Baldwin was here because he certainly wasn’t in the town through which we had just walked.

Viewing the former home and property from behind the gate

Baldwin’s niece Aisha had also noted this spiritual expectation in her Medium piece,

In the most ancient African spiritual traditions—it is acknowledged that those who have crossed over continue to exist amongst us and are ever present, helping to guide us. We feel and acknowledge their presences as well as give them due respect.”

Standing in front of the iron gate that separated us from where Baldwin drew his final breath, I kept trying to will it open with my mind. It didn’t feel right that we were on the other side of something sacred to each of us for our own reasons. At the same time, I had to remind myself that James Baldwin was more than his house and more than this land. We had already experienced throughout the week that he was all of us and we were him—ubuntu.

And then it happened.

All at once as I had released my resentment over our position on the outside of the gate, a man appeared and opened it, stating simply that we could come in for 2 minutes, but then we would have to leave. We originally thought he was going to shoo us away, but the door was held wide open and we were inside. I knew that the spiritual forces were at work, stirring this man’s heart to open that gate, probably beyond his own comprehension. joj, a friend and former board member of LMB, who had journeyed many times to this place said that this has never happened.

They have never let us in.

La Maison Baldwin’s roots began with an illegal squat on this property. Others have ventured inside by jumping fences or feigning an interest in purchasing a condo—Eddie Glaude—and even he could only look upon the construction that was taking place from a balcony.

For us, the gate was opened, and it was in that moment that I knew that Jimmy was with us. There was no doubt in my mind of his presence, especially as I gazed upon the patio area at which would have been his welcome table. We had been welcomed, even if only for a moment and the trip and the conference had been blessed.

James Baldwin at the Welcome Table. Photo credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of The Baldwin Family

Wearing our Crowns

Over the past seven months, I have heard story after story of the ways in which many who have engaged with La Maison Baldwin have been harmed-financially, emotionally, psychologically. While every recounting has touched me in some way, the most disturbing was from last year’s conference, a long-awaited gathering after the Covid years, of academics, writers and artists who assembled to celebrate Baldwin’s legacy in the south of France. Arriving in Nice with what I would assume was a sense of excitement and anticipation, they were greeted by their host wearing a nametag that had on the backside the words, F**k Around and Find Out.

The words weren’t scrawled subtlely with a pen, but typed, printed, cut, and pasted prominently in black and white. When I saw a photo of the actual nametag, I became sick to my stomach, trying to understand what thought process does one go through to make such an aggressive and egotistical gesture to conference participants, especially in the name of James Baldwin—a man who put out the Welcome Table. Whatever remaining grace I had for the previous leadership of La Maison Baldwin left in that moment.

Our writer’s conference in Paris served as a reclamation of Baldwin’s legacy—one that we all own, not from a place of ego and entitlement—but from a place of profound respect and affinity for the words, experience, and values that Baldwin embodied. We are the future of La Maison Baldwin, crafting a new narrative that recognizes that Baldwin’s legacy is bigger than the loss of any one building in a small village in the south of France.

Aisha shared in her piece that her uncle once said, “Your crown is already bought and paid for. All you have to do is wear it.” She goes on to write that “we wear our crowns with great pride and dignity—we are here gatekeeping.”

Amen to that.  

Two Jimmys from Harlem

I, like many Black ex pat writers, certainly stand on the trail that Baldwin blazed in France–a path of peace, creativity, and thoughtful reflection.

Back in 2020, I had applied to be the executive director of an organization called La Maison Baldwin. It was founded in 2016 after a valiant, but failed attempt to save James Baldwin’s home in the South of France from demolition. Although his former home had been taken over by luxury condominiums, the spirit of his life and legacy in the village of Saint Paul de Vence lived on in the mission of La Maison Baldwin–to cultivate and nurture a community of Black writers and artists by offering them the same rest and refuge that Baldwin found for himself in this little town.

I didn’t get the job and I was pretty devastated at the time. I thought all of the signs had been there. Here I was a Black writer in Paris. I had just written a piece about Baldwin and how his words were an angry, but necessary comfort to me as I watched the uprising after George Floyd’s murder from afar. In the interview process, I had even shared how Baldwin’s piece, Princes and Powers, was an inspiration for the three Paris trips I had planned for my fifth grade charter school students from 2016-2018. During those trips, we would bring our students together with French kids who looked a lot like them. Black and brown children, born and raised in Paris, but often regarded as “other” because of their North and West African heritage.

Like most disappointments, I eventually regarded the rejection as another “It wasn’t meant to be” moment and turned my attention elsewhere. But the loss of the opportunity to sit and work in the light of Baldwin’s legacy gnawed at me for some time afterwards. And even though I was invited to serve on the organization’s board, at the time, I knew it was best to exit stage right and lick my wounds in defeat.

A Delay, not a Denial

I’ve learned recently that the key to manifestation involves thought, feeling and inspired action. We’ve been mistakenly led to believe that we can just think something into existence, but it’s a bit more complex then that. We also have to embody the feeling of that manifestation realized–joy, relief, excitement–even before it is a reality. But most importantly, we have to pay attention to the inspired action that we are nudged to take. Not the actions we conjure up in our minds to force our reality, but those random impulses that land us in the right place at the right time. Those are the actions that bring our desires to fruition.

“I harbored no hard feelings, but my curiosity about the young woman to whom Shannon had handed my defeat hung heavy in the interaction.”

Enter September 2022. One evening, I went to an open mic at a small café in Paris to support a fellow writer as she read from her new book, The Glitter Horn. Sitting around in the dark, cavernous space, my friends and I were chatting about writing when we were approached by a woman, Shannon, who overheard our conversation and wanted to learn more. As she made her introduction, I realized that it was the founder of La Maison Baldwin. A face I had only seen on Zoom, she stood before me in flesh and blood and we both had a gradual realization of our brief history from two years prior. I harbored no hard feelings, but my curiosity about the young woman to whom Shannon had handed my defeat hung heavy in the interaction. Awkward, but gracious, Shannon humbly informed me that their choice didn’t work out.

The narrative of La Maison Baldwin’s last two years trickled out to me as Shannon and I reconnected over the subsequent weeks from our fateful reunion. Whichever of my professional assets she hadn’t fully appreciated before had come into full view this time around and by the end of 2022, I was offered the position of executive director at La Maison Baldwin. The moment was surreal and redemptive, full of possibility and enveloped in history, identity, and legacy.

The Two Jimmys

La Maison Baldwin’s core focus is to honor Baldwin’s life in the South of France. This place of refuge offered him the peace and solitude he needed to heal from the deaths of his friends during the Civil Rights Movement, notably Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. But it was also a place of welcoming, joy, and love and saw the likes of Josephine Baker, Stevie Wonder and Miles Davis as its esteemed guests, to name a few. There is so much to celebrate about Baldwin’s mark and legacy in this beautiful village in France.

But, as I was digging into LMB’s story and learning more about Baldwin’s own family’s perspectives about his second home in the world, I was intrigued by their articulation of his roots as a Harlem man and the importance of keeping that history in balance. While Saint Paul de Vence was where Baldwin chose to live out the last 17 years of his life, Harlem was where James Baldwin was born and formed. It was in Harlem that he was Jimmy, born right in the middle of the Harlem Renaissance in 1924, surrounded by the energy of this golden age of African-American literature, music, and art. To be born in Harlem, against the backdrop of the Great Migration, Baldwin was witness to the pride and possibility of Black beauty and success in all its forms.

I was reminded of my own father, another Jimmy from Harlem. Born two decades after Baldwin, he too knew the power and pride of the community. My father used to regale us with stories about how all of the mothers would keep an eye on the neighborhood kids each day so they couldn’t get away with too much mischief. Raised by his often strict mother, Cola, my father was in want of nothing as she taught him about the finer things in life and worked hard to send him to the best city schools. Cola and her brothers and sister had made that pivotal migration from the farmlands of Georgia to the big city, in search of opportunity and peace.

My father as a child on the Harlem rooftops

My father maintained his Harlem pride, but the death of his mother when he was only 22 and the backlash that followed the Civil Rights Movement in the name of the War on Drugs, redlining, and mass incarceration eventually drove him away from the community. My father had bigger dreams and knew that amidst the urban decline of the 70s and 80s, he could not achieve them on the Harlem streets that he loved so well. I remember as a kid, my dad would bring us to Harlem to visit his Aunt Ruby and each time, he would fondly reminisce about his days living on 151st Street. He would also lament the losses that Harlem experienced to its culture, pride, and standing in the world.

Just like Baldwin, my father sought to grieve and thrive in the green open spaces of the suburbs. Jimmy Phillips fundamentally knew that he could not provide the life for his family that he wanted by keeping us in New York City. Looking back, I admire his drive and his vision. Like Baldwin, he had a sense of his own greatness and potential, likely gifted to him from the legacy and magic of Harlem. A legacy that I know is infused so deeply in my own psyche as I continue to take journeys that challenge my comfort zone and the preconceived notions of what a Black girl from Brooklyn’s life should be.

My father also made a point of sharing the magic of Harlem with my son, Emmanuel. A year before he died in what was probably a prophetic gesture unbeknownst to him, my dad visited me and Emmanuel in Brooklyn and on one day when I was working, he took Emmanuel up to Harlem to his old stomping grounds. They took pictures in front of his old apartment and his former church and he spent the day telling Emmanuel about his life and childhood there. After my father’s sudden passing, I was grateful that he had shared those moments with his grandson–a final pilgrimage to the place that formed him and grounded a part of our family’s history.

Making them Proud

So, here I stand feeling both the weight and the inspiration of these two Jimmys as I embark on this new adventure. I can easily say that I often feel the heavenly presence of my dad in my life. It’s not the same as having him here physically, but I take comfort in knowing that his spirit is present, watching and loving from another realm.

But what of James Baldwin? Who am I to steward his legacy as we approach what would have been his 100th birthday in 2024? I, like many Black ex pat writers, certainly stand on the trail that Baldwin blazed in France–a path of peace, creativity, and thoughtful reflection. But on practical matters, I inherit an organization still recovering from the impact of a global pandemic, leadership transition challenges, and an empty bank account. I have asked myself more than once if I am on a fool’s errand.

Until what happened to be Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day two weeks ago.

“I felt incredibly blessed by the moment and thanked both of the Jimmys for what felt like a wink from Heaven.”

I had an errand to run at the American Church in Paris. I was there to scope out their theatre as a potential show venue for my theatre group. It was a typical rainy winter day in Paris and the temptation to stay warm and snug in my 6th floor flat was strong. But I descended to the Paris streets in an effort to honor my appointment. My guide seemed to make note of my identity as a Black American ex pat almost immediately because one of the first things he said to me was that both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin had spoken at that very church. I was taken aback by the synchronicity of the moment and noted to him that it was actually MLK day in the States–something he didn’t even realize at the time.

While the tour of the theatre space was a bit futile–the stage is unusable, my guide took me to see a framed picture that was hanging inconspicuously on the wall. If you didn’t know it was there, you could easily miss it. There he was in the photo, James Baldwin, speaking in the church in 1963. I felt incredibly blessed by the moment and thanked both of the Jimmys for what felt like a wink from Heaven.

Picture of James Baldwin speaking at the American Church of Paris

I have a great deal of work ahead of me as I get to the business of building a board, raising money, and organizing a conference for writers. But in the work, I feel Harlem, I feel Baldwin’s love of France, I feel my father’s loving expectation of excellence and I feel a tremendous honor.

I hope I make them proud.

The Divine Synchronicity of Labor Day

“I’ve come to realize that conscious living is neither forcing nor resisting the flow of our lives.”

Happy Labor Day!

My son, Emmanuel, was born on Labor Day in 2004. It was a bit ironic since I ended up have an emergency C-section about an hour and a half into labor. I never dilated past 3 centimeters and knowing my son’s personality, I can just imagine him in my uterus looking at that hole and saying to himself, “That’s too much for me. You all can just take me out the other way.” Emmanuel is very discerning about what labor he is willing to take on. Humoring no one with half-hearted gestures of acquiescence, he likes doing what makes sense and his fetus self clearly knew there was an easier way out.

Full on labor or not, Emmanuel’s arrival was glorious, punctuated by the fact that it was also the doctor’s birthday who delivered him. That had to be a good omen, right? The real labor, of course, started once we left the hospital and has continued in one form or another for 18 years. Looking back, I didn’t mind those early days of the persistent cycle of feedings, changings, and naps. I appreciated the security of those routine moments against the backdrop of the persistent drama with Emmanuel’s father. That emotional labor far outweighed the grogginess of nursing at 3:00am.

“Emmanuel did not come to fulfill some emotional and egoic need that I had, he came to push me to be my truest, most authentic self.”

For so long, I naively believed that Emmanuel would bring us together, me and his father. That his presence and love would put an end to the push-and-pull of the relationship that culminated with his existence. But as most people know, children don’t fix what is broken in a relationship, they amplify the problems that already exist.

It took Emmanuel coming into the world for me to see who his father truly was and to ultimately heal the wounds that had haunted me most of my life. Thank God Emmanuel never had to observe the toxic trauma bond that would have been our partnership had his father and I stayed together. Emmanuel did not come to fulfill some emotional and egoic need that I had, he came to push me to be my truest, most authentic self. His arrival on Labor Day portended the necessary labor of my healing journey–one that led me to a beautiful state of self-love and acceptance.

Labor Day JourneyA Mombbatical Begins

Labor Day, 2018 was also the day that I left the United States and moved to Paris. I didn’t register the synchronicity of the day for new beginnings as I was too busy managing two suitcases and a cat on my journey. But, in retrospect, I love that Labor Day once again loomed large in my life as the day my mombbatical officially began. And once again, what I had planned for this new phase and what the Universe had in mind were two completely different things.

Free of the daily demands of parenting, my mombbatical was supposed to mark a carefree phase of my life. I imagined romantic strolls along the Seine with days spent writing my great mombbatical memoir at cafes. I anticipated ease and clarity to emerge within months of my arrival. I don’t know what I was thinking. First, my professional identity was undefined for longer than I expected. I thought I would pick up a job that would leverage my years of organizational development experience and my HEC Paris degree. Nope. I spent months living off of savings and trying to figure out what was next. But, the mombbatical actually demanded rest from me, not another hustle, and so I embraced the time to be on my own and reflect on the possibilities ahead of me.

“When we speak of rebirth in a spiritual sense, we often envision some transcendent spiritual journey, with the studying of the wisdom of the great masters, or a singular moment of epiphany. My own rebirth, disguised as my mombbatical, was about the simple act of being fully acquainted with myself moment to moment.”

And then there was COVID. A mombbatical interrupted by a global pandemic, I was suddenly completely isolated from all the joy and beauty life had to offer, without access to my friends, my family, and especially my kid. It was a time when we were all forced to search for meaning in our lives, to assess our relationships, our vocations, our locations, and the bonds that truly matter. For me, the time brought into focus my understanding of energy and my sensitivities as an empath. I gained more clarity about what and who I wanted in my life, and I came out on the other side with new friends, wisdom, and a more sane approach to my professional life. I was reacquainted with an old passion, acting, and in time, I found a community of ex pats of color who rounded out the life I was creating in Paris.

When I started the mombbatical, I asked the question, “What happens on the journey from mom to me?” I didn’t know what the answer would be at the time, but my vision was so much smaller than what ultimately came to pass. When we speak of rebirth in a spiritual sense, we often envision some transcendent spiritual journey with the studying of the wisdom of the great masters, or a singular moment of epiphany. My own rebirth, disguised as my mombbatical, was about the simple act of being fully acquainted with myself moment to moment. It has meant leaning into peace and joy, while staying unrelentingly connected to my intuition as my best guide. So once again, Labor Day was this beautiful marker of growth and expansion, ushering in new dimensions of my identity.

Labor Day? Um. . okay, Labor Day It Is

When I left New York City for Paris on Labor Day, I didn’t have a concrete plan on how my life would play out. I knew I wanted to move around Paris a bit to see what neighborhoods appealed to me. I knew I wanted to take a break from working full-time to determine if I had any chops as a writer and I didn’t have my son in tow so there was no urgency to get settled. So, I left my things in storage in NY, assuming that I would be reunited with them in due time.

After wrangling with my own professional instability, a global pandemic, and French administration, nearly four years later, I was finally able to make the call in May 2022. My earthly possessions were put on a ship to cross the Atlantic and land at the Rotterdam port. It was an overwhelming feeling when I received the news that my shipment had arrived in the Netherlands. The possessions that I had accumulated and that had defined me throughout my life had been out of my grasp for almost four years. It was such a powerful lesson in understanding what material things are truly essential in our lives. I had managed to live a life in Paris with mostly the items that came with me in two suitcases, except for the occasional necessities that I picked up along the way, like a frying pan or a heavier coat.

“It wasn’t lost on me that Labor Day would book-end my son’s journey through childhood and that my nest would become officially empty on the exact same marker that it became so full.”

May transitioned to June and then July with no word as to when my things would be transported to Paris. “We’re waiting for clearance from French Customs.” With August and les vacances fast approaching, I knew French Customs wouldn’t be lifting a finger until la rentrée so I finished out the end of the summer not thinking too much about my long lost possessions as they sat at port in Rotterdam. I also had other more important preoccupations then being reunited with my KitchenAid mixer. I would be transporting my son from a farm in England to the Culinary Institute of America in NY in a complicated, yet well-choreographed week of trains, buses, planes, and automobiles from Paris to London to Derby to London to New York. A week that culminated on. . .wait for it. . Labor Day weekend.

It wasn’t lost on me that Labor Day would book-end my son’s journey through childhood and that my nest would become officially empty on the exact same marker that it became so full. It’s as if the Universe was saying, “Well done on doing the work, the kid will take it from here.” Given Emmanuel’s old soul nature, I always had the feeling that he was just riding out his childhood years because it was part of the process of becoming an adult. In his soul, he had been waiting for this moment from the very beginning.

And of course, as I was planning this travel extravaganza to facilitate the most significant transition in both my and Emmanuel’s lives, I get the call, well, the email. “Good day, Ms. Phillips, we have finally secured a driver for your shipment and would like to deliver it to you in Paris on Monday, September 5th.”  Yup. . .Labor Day. Now, I know that Labor Day is not an official holiday in France, the Netherlands or any country in Europe, but the synchronicity was impossible to ignore. The real challenge was that I was, in fact, going to be in the States because you know, Murphy’s Law, and would be unavailable to receive this shipment. Surely, they could deliver it another day. The movers would not budge. Labor Day it was going to be and thanks to a kind and unassuming cat sitter, my 30 boxes and bicycle arrived to my Paris apartment in my absence.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic after multiple trips to Target and a hilarious back and forth over my old-fashioned gendered take on his butterfly sheets, Emmanuel was moved in at the Culinary Institute of America and ready to go. He indulged me one last reading of Oh, The Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss, a first day of school routine from Kindergarten to 7th grade when, in his middle school swagger, he abandoned with a gentle, “I’m good, Mom.” Outside his dorm, we said our goodbyes and within days, I had boarded a plane back to Paris.

Arriving back to 30 boxes stacked wherever they would fit, under the watchful and curious eye of Ruby, the cat, my nest was empty, and my life was now in Paris. There was no turning back. The jetlag would have to wait as I had to unload these items in order to function and satisfy my none-too-pleased cat whose peace had been disrupted by this insane delivery. Piece after piece emerged with a wink of “Remember me?”–clothes, pictures, books, ceramic doodads from Emmanuel’s days at Brooklyn Friends School. Miraculously, everything had found a place in my Paris flat, and I was officially at home for the first time in four years.

Honoring the Cycles in Life

The synchronicity of Labor Day has taught me to honor the cycles in life. Nurtured by the values of modern western life, I was lured into believing that I was in control. That if I worked hard and persevered, my will and schemes would fall into place. However, whether it was the surprise of a baby boy in my life or the forced confinement and separation of the pandemic, I’ve come to realize that conscious living is neither forcing nor resisting the flow of our lives. For me, the “labor” was learning to trust these cycles, to surrender to the uncertainty that lay within them, and to believe in the resources that existed in me to manage them.

As I was explaining the uncanny synchronicity of Labor Day to a friend, she got chills. I was moved by her reaction as I reflected on the transformation that had taken place inside of me throughout these cycles. On Labor Day, I went from mom to mombbatical to empty nest. What a profound gift from an ever-present Universe, reminding me that there truly is divine order and that I am always exactly where I need to be at all times.

The Sanctity of our Dreams

“When I first started this piece almost a year ago, Roe v. Wade was the furthest thing from my mind and the experience of Central Park West had not yet appeared on my radar. Now, looking at the sanctity of life through the lens of our heartfelt dreams makes this reflection all the more poignant.”

Many months ago, a Facebook friend posted a question, “At what age do you tell your child to get a job and not follow their dreams?” The question made me both sad for the poster and for the prospect altogether. Shortly after I had read this question, I started to craft a narrative about it, but was halted by several worthy distractions. Now that my writing motor has restarted. . I think. . I felt it time to come back to it.

When I first started drafting my thoughts on this, a few events unfolded that lent more meat to my reflections. Sha’Carri Richardson’s Olympic dream ground to a halt as she was both punished and scrutinized for trying to manage the grief of her mother’s death by smoking weed. Then, my best friend of 40+ years was featured on Elle.com–an inspiring piece that left me digging deeper into the lost pursuit of my own dreams. A visit to the Culinary Institute of America put my son’s academic and professional dreams front and center. Finally, under the Olympic spotlight, Simone Biles wrestled with the challenges of the “twisties” while carrying the weight of the US Olympic team’s legacy on her shoulders.

All of these events led me to ponder the question, “Who really has agency over our dreams?”

On its surface, it should be a simple question to answer. But the cult of celebrity, the capitalist pressure of monetary success and the very real social and political constraints on our bodies and minds makes the answer not quite so simple.

This decision is about so much more than whether to carry a pregnancy to term. This decision for both woman and child is about the ownership of the trajectory of one’s life, full stop.

I’ll stay away from too much commentary about Sha’Carri Richardson and Simone Biles. What I will offer is that I found it fascinating and tragic that these two women were so heavily scrutinized for tending to their own physical and emotional needs. Their means of self-care are irrelevant. Their critics broadcast the message that they were not entitled to ownership of their own bodies, health, grief or dreams. It’s impossible to confirm whether or not they would have been spared such judgment if they were of a different hue. However, what they experienced did feel like a remnant from a time when Black women’s bodies were owned by masters, their wives, and a brutal economic system in which they were literally the drivers of production. The parallel should make us at least uncomfortable.

And now we are staring down the looming overturn of Roe v. Wade, a landmark Supreme Court decision that allowed women to take control of their bodies, their family planning and in turn, the manifestation of their professional and personal dreams. My best friend of 40+ years, Alexis McGill Johnson, is the president of Planned Parenthood Foundation and kicked ass in a brilliant interview on The Daily Show where she stated matter-of-factly that “Most people do not want a politician in their decision.” This decision is about so much more than whether to carry a pregnancy to term. This decision for both woman and child is about the ownership of the trajectory of one’s life, full stop.

Lucky for me, I have had access to Alexis’s inspiring brilliance since I was 8 years old. The first time I ever saw her, she was doing cartwheels on our elementary school stage in a play. Donning afro puffs and fearlessness in her gymnastic feat, I was drawn to her confidence and the fact that she was a Black girl like me. Decades later, I am honored to have had a front row seat to her ascension as an important voice of advocacy and activism in the fight for social justice.

Last July, Alexis was featured on Elle.com and there was a particular part of the interview that stuck out to me.

When McGill Johnson was in high school, Condoleezza Rice, who at the time was a national security advisor in the George H. W. Bush administration, “was on TV every day, talking about Gorbachev, and the fall of the Soviet Union.” She was obsessed, watching Rice every chance she got and one of her mentors, an uncle-like figure, told her, “You know, that could be you. You’re really good at arguing. You’re really good at making a case. And I really see you being like her.”

Alexis McGill Johnson Is Making Her Mark on Planned Parenthood, Elle.com, July 2021

As besties in high school, we were generally preoccupied with boys and passing notes in class so I had little knowledge of her obsession with Condoleeza Rice or the way in which it inspired her. I knew Alexis could argue–boy, can she argue, but we seldom didn’t see the same side of an issue. As I read these words, I was catapulted back to our high school years and had to ask myself, What was the object of my obsession back then? Watching Alexis’s actualization of this core part of herself in such an important and impactful context, I felt convicted in my own heart that I had not lived up to the example that had been in front of me most of my life.

My Love of the Stage

In high school, the object of my obsession was the stage, acting in dramas and musicals every year with the ambition of pursuing the life when I grew up. My ambitions were thwarted by a waning confidence within the reality of theatrical politics, and a less than supportive family unit. Over time, I never really let myself think about it until a friend’s middle-aged theatrical second wind inspired me to give it go.

So. . . when I saw the audition call for Central Park West, I became pretty excited. . .and then ambivalent. The old voices of doubt started in my head, especially as I contemplated the piece’s author, Woody Allen. Notorious for the lack of diversity in his films, Woody Allen’s justification is that he “always casts the person who fits the part most believably in my mind’s eye” and that affirmative action “does not work” in film. Sigh. Surely, it was unlikely that I would be cast in this play even if Woody Allen was not actually at the helm.

I was mistaken.

It is a reminder that when we acquiesce our childhood dreams to parents or adults who neglect to nurture and encourage us, a restorative act of grace can come from a stranger down the road when we least expect it.

I was, in fact, cast to play the lead, Phyllis, a brilliant Upper West Side psychoanalyst with an attractive, yet morally bankrupt husband and a questionable group of friends. . .I don’t want to give too much away. In the US, there would have been plenty of middle-aged white New York women who could have played this part. No director would have had to think outside the box on this one. But here, in an European context, our Swedish director had a much more expanded vision of the part and was convinced, after a deserving audition, that this role was mine.

I remember the moment when I read the email letting me know I got the part. Gratitude, surprise, a little bit of terror when I realized that I would be taking to the stage again after decades. And to be cast in the lead– trusted with the responsibility of holding the story and the energy, an honor that had eluded me in high school–felt almost redemptive. It is a reminder that when we acquiesce our childhood dreams to parents or adults who neglect to nurture and encourage us, a restorative act of grace can come from a stranger down the road when we least expect it.

Playing Phyllis, being Phyllis, was a thrill of a lifetime. Performing on a stage in the very town outside of Paris where Josephine Baker made her home added a surrealism and anointing to the experience. As a writer, I savored all the ways I could play with the text and the role pushed me to stay grounded in my body in a powerful way, something I always struggle with as a part of healing trauma. My whole self was brought to the task and it was life in a state of pure bliss.

The Sanctity of Life

A couple of weeks before the play’s opening night, I was in New York City celebrating my 50th birthday with my beloved friends and family. I took Emmanuel, my son, for lunch one day and he asked me how the play was going. I was touched by his curiosity and support, especially as he was on the precipice of officially pursuing his own dream of becoming a chef. In that moment, I embraced the opportunity to look my son in the face and authentically share with him the meaning of following one’s bliss. The moment was pregnant with urgency.

I told Emmanuel that the play was going well, but the experience was something deeper than that. I explained how I couldn’t wait for rehearsals to begin each day and whenever we were rehearsing, I never wanted the time to end. I told him how I read the script at least two times a day without complaint and that I could talk for hours with our director and my fellow actors about what we were creating together. I looked at Emmanuel with all of the gravity that parenting sometimes demands and told him that this is what it means to follow your bliss and that if being in the kitchen and cooking gives him that, then he is destined to be a chef.

When I first started this piece almost a year ago, Roe v. Wade was the furthest thing from my mind and the experience of Central Park West had not yet appeared on my radar. Now, pondering the sanctity of life through the lens of our heartfelt dreams makes this reflection all the more poignant.

We choose to nurture others or we choose to shame them. We choose to support or we choose to discourage. We choose to open our minds to what is possible or we choose to close them.

You know, people who want to have children often do it with the blurriest of intentions–to save a failing relationship, to fill some egoic need or emotional void, or because it’s the next step in the commitment journey. When we don’t examine these intentions closely or when the reality does not meet the expectation, the consequences can be life-changing for those very children. So, why would a society force the road of parenthood on those who would not have chosen it otherwise?

What is becoming clear to me is that we are all in possession of each other’s dreams. The particular American notion of individual grit and perseverance is nonsense. Our enduring connections to each other in relationship and in life- our brief but consequential interactions matter–parent to child; bestie to bestie; politician to constituent. The beauty of this idea is that choice sits at the very heart of it. We choose to nurture others or we choose to shame them. We choose to support or we choose to discourage. We choose to open our minds to what is possible or we choose to close them.

When we encourage others to make the choices that are aligned with who they really are, with their dreams for the future, no matter what they may include, we are, in fact, pro-life.

Image credit: Toni Carmine Salerno

Digging in the Dirt

“Digging in the dirt
Stay with me, I need support
I’m digging in the dirt
To find the places I got hurt
Open up the places I got hurt”–Peter Gabriel

Since I last posted, I have started four different blog posts–The Urgency of our Dreams, Slaying the Narcissist, On Turning 50, and On Love and War. In each of them, I have gotten hundreds of words into my thoughts. I was satisfied with the flow of my perspectives and narration. But, in each case, I found myself unable to land the plane, so to speak. Something inside me just hasn’t been able to get the piece across the finish line, until now.

I dropped down into my heart to find the truth of my block and I realized that the issue was about authenticity. I’ve always used my writing as a medium to reflect deeply on issues that would resonate with and encourage more thoughtfulness in others. Often to my detriment, I live in my head and the strength of my mind has been a gift and a crutch in life. It has protected me in trying moments–more on that later–and it has been an unintentional shield against true vulnerability. I realize that my writing is demanding more from me than the ability to compel with words.

My friend, Andrew, likened writing to a relationship, citing all of the dynamics that come with being in one. The analogy landed hard on me for a few reasons. One, it made perfect sense and eased some of my frustration around being so stalled. But it also suggested that writing demands intimacy, presence, and endurance; all of which I have struggled to secure in my own relationships. And writing has to be seen as a safe place to be one’s complete self.


“Our society is unkind to women of a certain age who are unattached. There are always the looming questions-“What is wrong with her? Why can’t she keep a man?”

I don’t write much about my romantic relationships. I penned a memoir about the journey that was my relationship with Emmanuel’s father, but that’s just sitting on my computer expiring in its relevance. Having just turned 50, I do feel some shame in still being single. Our society is unkind to women of a certain age who are unattached. There are always the looming questions of “What is wrong with her? Why can’t she keep a man?” As a Black woman, the historical tropes of us being hypersexual-merely good for a f**k, angry, or predestined for single parenthood hang over me like a shadow.

So, in the light of day, I don’t expose the truth of my sadness and the loneliness I feel climbing into bed each night flanked on my right by only a cat. I have spent years focused on healing many parts of myself and my life. Wounds that are not my fault, but my soul’s chosen journey nonetheless. Despite all of the work I have done, I still come up wanting and so I reserve my frustration for my most intimate confidants while sharing the joy and gratitude that I am genuinely reaching for every day with the rest of the world.

I decided to write about this now because some things I have experienced recently have reminded me of how the need for healing lingers on and on and perhaps by writing it down, by bringing into the light, I can transform it and release it because I’ve had enough of getting in my own way and maybe I can help someone else in the process.

So, what is wrong with me?

I asked myself this question in 2009. My whole body felt on edge as I was actively processing a 14-year codependent/narcissistic dance with Emmanuel’s father, who had just had kid with another woman. I felt a persistent pain in my lower back and I was in a constant state of fight or flight. I remember one afternoon laying in the back seat of my parked car crying uncontrollably and asking God or the Universe or whatever was out there, “What is wrong with me?”

What followed was an arduous journey of unraveling the memory of a childhood sexual trauma, followed by confronting years of codependent behaviors, and capped off with understanding how my mother’s own childhood wounding put her on the narcissism spectrum. All of this has been the perfect shitstorm for my relationship challenges. And just when I think I have turned a corner or healed all the stuff, little remnants appear that demand renewed attention.

Healing trauma is tricky business, especially one that is deeply embedded in the brain. Our brains are extraordinary instruments, shutting down in moments when we do not have the cognitive ability to process what is happening to us. This is the physiological protection that occurs in children to help us survive. But, then the brain is forever changed and engages in this dissociative habit well beyond the traumatic event. I learned that only PTSD therapies can begin to unlock the brain and rewire it to release the internalized memory of shame and blame that is born out of trauma. So I immersed myself in EMDR*–eye movement desensitization and reprocessing–to begin the journey back to myself.

Working through codependency is a discipline that never lets up. Throughout the process, I have learned that codependency and narcissism are pathologies that feed one another. The narcissist loves the codependent because of our obsessive people-pleasing and the codependent can’t resist the narcissist as we believe we have to always be “doing” to deserve love. A narcissist is keen on making their target do and do and do until they are satisfied without ever giving back the love in kind. Reaching back into my past, reconnecting with what I perceived were “lost loves”, I discovered those glimmers of narcissism that had been hidden from me. I even began to look at friendships differently, understanding the who and the why of what I had attracted into my life for so long.

And then there’s my mother. Many years ago, after observing me confide in my father about some girl-in-her-twenties stuff, my mother was hurt that I didn’t come to her, admitting her long-held jealousy of my father’s admiration of me growing up. It was a strange confession, but it gave me a clearer lens through which to look at her cruelty and criticism towards me as an adolescent. We’ve come a long way, but sometimes she still can’t fight the urge to diminish me, especially if she’s not getting the attention that she wants. So, I’ve learned to step back and observe her behavior or to simply walk away. Emmanuel, my son, has been my best teacher in this regard as he doesn’t seem to internalize anyone else’s behaviors. The kid has emotional boundaries of steel and is still as loving as can be. Thank God for him.

“Energetically and intuitively, I feel like I am reclaiming all that was lost.”

I have been singularly obsessed with my healing for well over a decade now. The rage** that used to reside in me–the rage of a little girl who had been violated and unprotected–it has been transformed into love and acceptance and joy. I feel and experience so much love from people in my life. Friends, near and far, who just want to be around me in the most authentic and pure way. It is said that trauma changes who you are meant to become. Energetically and intuitively, I feel like I am reclaiming all that was lost.

But, I forgot to tell myself that I was safe.

I made a beautiful connection with someone. It was unexpected for me and a bit of a slow burn. Then something clicked between us and the energy became undeniable. I trusted him. He gave me no reason not to. He was never withholding in his appreciation of me and his gaze was always filled with so much intention. And I was often moved by the little flash of insecurity he would get over my benign interactions with other men–not jealousy, just an vulnerable curiosity.

We finally had a moment where we had the freedom to face this connection, unpack the energy that had been growing between us. But then, almost on autopilot, my dissociative trauma brain kicked in and I completely shut down. I found myself saying things, protective comments that killed the moment. Of course, I didn’t know this was what was happening at the time. It was only the next day that could I look back and see myself in that moment, trying to get him to see that the emotions were triggering a buried fear. I wish I had reminded myself that I was safe.

The sad irony about trauma-related dissociation is that what brings someone back from it is physical touch. Touch grounds us back to the present moment and diffuses the fight-flight-freeze response in the brain. Yet for those witnessing this reaction, it can feel like rejection or indifference and so their instinct is to pull away. Looking back as if watching a movie reel in my head, I recall seeing the veil of disappointment fall over this beautiful man’s face as I seemed to vanish. It was only when we hugged goodbye that I came back, and by then, it was too late. I had hurt someone who meant so much to me. Of course, the recovering codependent in me tried to fix it in the days and weeks to follow because that’s what we do, but I just made more of a mess.

Healing Trauma is Hard

I lost a high school friend of mine recently. She died suddenly from medical issues connected to her lifelong struggle with alcohol addiction. Her name was Tara, too and we were pretty inseparable in high school. She was Big Tara and I was little Tara. Tara was a rock star in our town–her athletics, her academics, her heart. She could have her picture in the local paper pulling off a brilliant lay up and not let it phase her at all. At the same time, I remember her drinking when we were teenagers and my desperate attempt to get her to deal with it, but to no avail. It broke my heart to find out that she struggled until the end. A beautiful life cut short and a loss that has sent shockwaves through my entire high school class.

One can’t help but wonder if Tara was running from her own trauma. It’s something we will never know for sure, but to live a life gripped by the disease of addiction certainly suggests it. We place judgment on those who suffer from addiction without considering what their dependence is masking or empathizing with how difficult it is to confront those haunting wounds in the first place. Facing our traumas-digging in the dirt- might mean realizing we’re in a relationship that doesn’t serve us. Or taking responsibility for pain we have inflicted on others. It could also mean accepting that we’ve spent half our lives in service to work that neither feeds or inspires us. It’s so much easier to drink or smoke our way out of the presence of those things than to sit fully in our pain, alone.

But, we’re here to help each other through it.

“Perhaps we’re supposed to see each other, not for the fulfillment of our longings or needs, but for the facilitation of our healing, consciously or not. And then when that healing has happened, we can be free together or sometimes apart.”

I remember when I unearthed the memory of my own trauma. It was not a linear process. It was fragmented and strange and I remember the panic that set in when the clarity came. I called my friend, Sarah, who happened to be a therapist and I met with her to explain what I was going through. My agitation and fear were tangible and she zeroed in on the most important thing about what I was sharing. She said, “You’re afraid that I don’t believe you. I believe you.” She saw me and knew exactly what I needed to survive that moment. It was a stunning gesture of pure grace.

Our society teaches us that our relationships are supposed to be transactional, especially the romantic ones. Men are socialized to earn money and power to provide, to protect, and to get their sexual needs met. The latter creating such complicated, demeaning, and sometimes dangerous sexual dynamics between men and women. Women are expected to twist ourselves into whatever form, persona, and demeanor it takes to get the ring, the house, and the kids, who are then expected to fulfill all of our unmet emotional needs under the guise of motherhood and when they fail to do so, we saddle them with our disappointment and judgment. We buy into these illusions that we belong to and possess one another without any regard for healing or becoming who we are really meant to be in the process.

Perhaps we’re supposed to see each other, not for the fulfillment of our longings or needs, but for the facilitation of our healing, consciously or not. And then when that healing has happened, we can be free together or sometimes apart. I know I never would have healed this trauma from my past had it not been for the painful experiences I had with Emmanuel’s father and also, the best thing for Emmanuel is that his father and I were never together. That was never the purpose of our “love.”

It was a much bigger vision of love than I could have imagined.

Despite all my mess, I am a believer that our souls choose our journeys. The lessons from my healing about love, forgiveness, and vulnerability are helping me to break the generational cycles that have existed in my own family. I have so much hope for Emmanuel. That he will be able to give and receive love and reach for his passions with humility, but without fear. Just talking with him openly about my own struggles, or the often screwed up societal expectations in life and love is a step.

In the meantime, I hope that someday, someone will really see me. See the light and joy in my eyes and the fight in my heart. He will see that I am whole, but always seeking to become more of myself. And in the moments when I get that faraway look in my eyes and I seem to disappear, he will take my hand and tell me that I’m safe. And he will stay.

*To learn more about EMDR, go to https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/

**To learn more about rage, how it shows up, and how to heal it, I highly recommend Healing Rage by Ruth King. It’s a brilliant book about the disguises of rage and how we can use them and transform them.